Now for the Hard Part

Facing the pressing questions

With a narrow edge in the popular vote and a decisive victory in the Electoral College, President Barack Obama has secured a second term. His 2008 coalition of younger voters, African Americans, Latinos, and college­-educated women proved remarkably resilient despite four years of high unemployment, anemic economic growth, and ceaseless obstructionism from political opponents. While Democrats have increased their majority in the Senate, the House remains firmly in Republican hands. Whether the confrontational, bitter, and paralyzing politics of the Tea Party will continue to frustrate government action is the most pressing question facing the nation. Responsible members of both parties acknowledge that a long­-term budget deal, one that gets entitlement spending under control but also increases tax revenue, is necessary both for the health of the economy and for restoring confidence in the nation’s political institutions. 

When this now lame­-duck Congress convenes for its final session next week, the government will immediately have to grapple with the so­-called fiscal cliff. Unless Congress and the president come to a budget agreement, draconian cuts in domestic and military spending and across-­the-­board tax increases will go into effect on January 1. (Republicans demanded this “deal” in return for raising the national debt ceiling in 2011.) Economists warn that going over the cliff could send the nation back into recession. The president has indicated he is willing to restructure programs such as Medicare and Social Security, but not unless Republicans agree to let the Bush tax cuts expire for those making more than $250,000. Obama wants to preserve tax cuts for those earning less than $250,000 and extend the payroll tax cut in order to get money into the hands of those most likely to spend it. Republicans have refused to consider raising taxes on even the wealthiest Americans. How this numbingly familiar standoff will be resolved remains unclear.

A temporary budget might pass, postponing the reckoning until later in 2013. Or Obama might allow the cuts to start taking effect and then strike a deal with the new Congress. If the Bush tax cuts expire, everyone’s taxes will go up. Republicans would then be able to vote for tax cuts for middle-­class Americans without violating their pledge not to raise anyone’s taxes. For their part, Democrats could hold the line against tax cuts for the wealthiest but agree to other tax cuts and more modest reductions in spending.

There are some critics even within his own party who worry that Obama has not prepared the American people for the tough choices ahead. As the baby boomers continue to retire, the cost of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid will climb to unsustainable levels if adjustments are not made. Costs will have to be more broadly shared, and the president will have to explain why and how that will happen.

In many respects, the interminable presidential campaign seems only to have made that reckoning more difficult. Too long, too expensive, and too short on substantive debate, the campaign failed to clarify the nation’s most urgent issues.

Yet some important questions have been answered. Because Obama was re-elected, the Affordable Care Act—vociferously and mistakenly opposed by the U.S. bishops—will not be repealed. Forty million uninsured Americans will now have access to health care. Although much more needs to be done, the Dodd­-Frank Act (.pdf) will begin the process of more effectively regulating the financial industry. Like the bailout of the auto industry, these signature achievements of the Obama administration have been affirmed by the president’s re-election, sending a clear signal that Americans still want government to solve problems.

Among those who should be chastened by this election are the U.S. Catholic bishops. There is little evidence that Catholics or others were persuaded by the bishops’ arguments against the ACA or its contraception mandate, let alone their exaggerated claims about threats to religious freedom. Voters also dealt the bishops’ ongoing campaign against same­-sex marriage a series of setbacks. Perhaps it is time for the bishops, like the Republican Party, to rethink their increasingly confrontational approach to divisive social and political questions (see “Morbid Symptoms”). In light of Obama’s re-election, a change in tone and style would be both gracious and shrewd. The bishops might even try modeling what a more civil political discourse should look like. As for the president, victory should bring magnanimity. In his election-­night speech, he eloquently said that his opponents have taught him to be a better president. Exempting religious institutions such as universities and hospitals from the ACA’s contraception mandate would be a dramatic way to show what he has learned from those who in good conscience object to his policies. Providing health care for those who need it most should unite, not divide, religious institutions and a democratic government. 



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President Obama's clear victory preserves the ACA and affirms many of the President's first-term positions. As the editors point out, many legislators, including Republicans, have also been reelected in clear victories that reaffirm their positions. So the key participants in any talks will be the same ones who have long been unable to reach agreement. How do the President and Congress move forward, when each can claim that voters reaffirmed their earlier postures? 

Each side will have to reframe the disussion away from the prior battle lines. Further debate about simply raising the personal income tax rate for incomes above $250K, and ctegorical cuts to food stamps and other existing social programs will be fruitless, as each side points to its recent electoral mandate. All those positions, all that vocabulary, needs to be abandoned if there is to be progress. Neither side needs to abandon its principles.

If we agree that creating jobs, preserving Medicare and Social Security, and really addressing poverty are the key goals, then we can move beyond the political divisions that brought us to the fiscal cliff. There are well-used models, and thoughtful ideas, that open new opportunities for progress. Pennsylvania's income tax might offer a model for simplifying the federal personal income tax: 3.07% tax against all income, no exemptions except pension income, no exclusions or deductions for mortgages, marital status, kids, blindness, etc., capital gains and dividends taxed at the same 3.7% rate. This Pennsylvania model is the Buffett Rule (executive assistants pay the same rate as executives) turned on its head. Robert Reich, who served the Clinton administration as Secretary of Labor, has advocated eliminating the corporate income tax. It's a radical idea, proposed by a liberal, that conservatives could embrace, and it should appeal to the 47% of American households (that must include many middle-class households) who currently own corporate stocks and would encourage investment and innovation, which produce new jobs--all of which directly benefits the middle class. 

Our leaders might also reframe the discussion of social benefits to focus on the common good and a preferential option for the poor, rather than battling about preserving or cutting programs that refected social conditions of fifty years ago. The minorities that need protection are no longer defineable by race or ethnicity when the President is biracial, and African-Americans hold positions as CEOs, Supreme Court justices, and members of Congress. Latinos and white women have achieved similar successes. If we define new minorities such as the 20 percent of American adults who are functionally illiterate, or the 40 percent of children in some cities who drop out of school, etc., then we can begin to formulate effective stategies for their benefit--a preferential option for the poor. The Gospel calls us to help the man who is wounded at the side of the road because he is wounded, not because he belongs to a certain racial minority. 

On Tuesday we re-elected the President and many of the members of Congress who together set up this now-iminent fiscal cliff. All of them received a mandate, presumably based on their prior positions. They will make progress only if we, the people, encourage them to use completely new approaches that avoid the fruitless axioms that produced the current mess. 



The editors believe there is little evidence that Catholics or others were persuaded by the bishops’ arguments.  In fact, there is evidence that Catholics were moved to support the President in reaction to the Bishops behavior. 

I am largely in agreement with the editors' reflections on the election; however, I believe they are too harsh on the Bishops. Reform of healthcare and extension of health benefits to all Americans, particularly the poor, has long been their advocated position. Objection to the ACA was not based on its aims, but on specifice provisions, in particular the inexplicable and not essentially modified mandate. The editors themselves advocate rescinding, or at least drastically modifying, that mandate.

The GOPers made rash promises to never raise taxes. The bishops made rash promises to always oppose birth control. Both are stuck with their rash promises and I'm not inclined to bail either group out.

Ed, it is not "bailing out the bishops" to oppose the mandate which drastically redefines a religious institution, which redefinition will hurt the advancement of all Catholic social causes, including those top of mind for liberal Catholics. We more liberal Catholics will be deeply sorrowful if the mandate is not rescinded by the Administration or declared unconsitutional by SCOTUS.


How can Government in demanding insurance companies to provide a service, if the  insurance customer wants it, be unconstitutional.? Can Jehovah's Witnesses demand the government to not permit my blood transfusion. The Church's insurance companies in many cases already provided BC until the bishops discovered Freedom of Religion to deny empoyees what the employees want.

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